I don't do availability checks for non-paying jobs. Because I don't say yes to any job unless I've read the script and I don't read scripts for availability checks. That's 2-3 hours of my time gone for a job I might not get. When you're early in your career and trying to amass credits, it's reasonable to work for free a lot until you get to know and work with folks in the industry which will lead to work that will look kickass on your resume.
However, once you've reached a certain point where everyone in town knows you, you got a press kit and website with hella NYTimes reviews, then it's time to make yourself a more valuable commodity by refusing to work for free. Because if you don't, you'll be working for free or for pennies for most of your career because folks have figured out that they can get you for cheap. Trust, I know plenty of theatre actors who are collecting more money than the rest of the cast....that's because they know their worth and are willing to pass on a job by saying no to little or no money. There's a certainly level of self-worth as a human being and an artist that those kinds of actors have learned to develop. After awhile, it doesn't feel frightening to know, it feels like a relief from some grinding work that no one was going to say thank you for, or make you an offer or pay you for your time. Actors who say no, are done proving and start getting better jobs and making significant money constantly.
For the record, I don't do availability checks when I'm casting a film or play. I simply cannot wrap my brain around asking an actor to hold time for me when I've not really chosen them. It's like saying, "I don't want you, but I need a body, so will you be that body." That's feeding on actor desperation which we need a whole lot less of ...(and that's on us to make our own opportunities instead of waiting for someone to give us work for hire)
The only exception is for Film/TV. Because those jobs are automatically on offer to folks who are already on TV shows or movies currently in theatres. So they're putting me on hold just in case they can't get an actor released from their rehearsal schedule. That has to do with viewership, audience, whether or not a network wants to cast from the shows already running and millions of dollars on the line. There is also thousands of dollars to be made from 2 hours on a set and you only have to read and study your scene (because most episodics don't give you the entire script until you book the role and are on set). I'll be on hold for a job that requires 2-3 hours of my time for potentially thousands of dollars and massive audience numbers seeing my work. From a business perspective, that a risk worth taking...it moves me into a much wider market place with the potential to make the kind of money that will change the fabric of my life.
Availability checks for theatre? Not so much, I have a 6 figure education that you're paying for, so if you can't make me an offer, I'm not taking time to read your script and decide. My agents/manager tell me it's not personal, it's just business. But you know what? My time is money, so my saying "no" to an availability check means I may lose valuable money-making time waiting for a no money job. So my refusal is business too.
My career, my dreams, my plans, my ability to make a shitload of money doesn't take a back-seat to the concerns of the industry....
""""One of the most mortifying moments I experienced in my theatrical career was when I was asked to bring the entirely African-American cast of a new musical we were workshopping, a new piece by an African-American librettist and composer, across the street to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and up into the plush boardroom so they could perform a song or two for the board of directors. I wanted to say something, but I didn't. For one thing, it would take an invaluable 45 minutes to an hour out of the creative team's limited time together. But... every year we had to do the same old song and dance for the board to remind them that yes, we did do new plays and musicals, so yes, it was sometimes a good idea to expose the board to new voices, to the vibrancy of an exciting work in progress.
You all know where this is going, don't you? I led the team in. The talent in that team! The writer/composer himself and the cast, lauded veterans of the stage and the most promising members of the next generation of acting giants. And there was our board. White, as white as can be, white white white white. And very comfortable. They'd just been served lunch, I believe. My theater spared no expense in pleasing our board and catering to their demands (oh my god, I'm feeling such rage right now! I'm pretty sure we had a staff member who was mostly dedicated to help our richest board members get house seats to shows on Broadway and the West End. But I digress...)
The only black face in the audience seated at the conference table? The only person of color? The head of our education department, of course. My heart went out to her.
The cast sang a song from the show. They did it. And they brought it. Because they were and are professionals. And the very pillars of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion reverberated down to the parking lot. It was breathtaking.
And I had just been complicit in the remaking of a scene for the millionth time: black bodies and voices entertaining white audiences, an institution raising money on the backs and voices of black bodies.
I was too mortified to apologize to our writer and to our cast, none of whom, I should add, expressed even an iota of discomfort. They were professionals, and they shone. And come to think of it, they'd probably all become accustomed to this scene. "It's just how theater works," they might have thought with a shrug of their shoulders. Or maybe they seethed inside, for the millionth time, when all they were trying to do is workshop a new musical.
Well, I apologize sincerely now to our writer and those actors. I wish I had had the courage to put my foot down. It is not how theater should work.
I quit the American theater on Valentine's Day 2016, so I've been out more than four years now. And honestly I don't plan to return, which is why I can write with such candor.
The heart of the problem, my friends, is with the non-profit structure, which is capitalism on steroids. Who are the bosses ultimately in an American institutional theater? The board of directors. Who are the board of directors? For the most part, those members of the community not with the strongest attachment to the art form but those with the deepest pockets. Often they're really not members of the community. They often just drop in. They are sometimes mere tourists.
It's no wonder that that board meeting was held in the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The theater, like most American theaters, had built its board of directors on the old opera model: You get the richest folks together, offer them galas and house seats and receptions and private recitals and showings (for which artists often don't get paid extra, mind you), you pamper them and make them feel more special and entitled than they already do, and then they'll write you big checks to support the kind of art they like, the kind of art they can bring their kids and grandkids to. AND they--not the artists, not the community--get to hire the institution's leadership.
It is a rotten model. Rotten to the core. How can any artistic institution claim to be working for and in the community with that model?
It's got to be torn down. It's got to be reinvented. And I have no idea what the next model will be. I really don't. And no, honestly I don't think government is the solution frankly. Some of the most bloated, self-satisfied, decadent theater I've ever seen was in Germany, where it was almost fully government-funded. Lots of bells and whistles and provocations and completely soul-dead.
I see amazing and galvanizing lists of demands recently being made and posted by theater artists of color. These are vital demands. But they don't address the central issue. As long as the ultimate bosses of an artistic institution remain the community's deepest pockets, nothing will change. Nothing. You'll be putting band-aids on a gaping wound. Sorry, but it's true.
So please figure something else out. Maybe for a few years you just avoid the institutions. You've already started. In the pandemic, so many of you are making amazing art without an institution. Find those who truly adore your work and ask them to fund it. Screw non-profit. Form a corporation and value your art art-making as a resource that profits you, your viewers/audience and your community. I have no idea.
But please don't return to a new version of the old. After the virus, after he's out of office, after police reform and nationwide conversations about race, after, after, after, begin something new. I can't wait to see what it is!”
Words: Pier Carlo Talenti
Video: Griffin Matthews
April Yvette Thompson